Ukraine and Russia: Prospects for Peace

I will be giving a talk in Toronto next Sunday (22 February) at a conference entitled ‘Ukraine and Russia: Prospects for Peace’. For full details click here.



Object lesson #15: Yeltsin matrioshka

Russia’s economy collapsed in the 1990s, but for the matrioshka industry it was boom time. Freed from the restraints of socialist central planning, entrepreneurs brought out matrioshkas in different shapes, sizes, and designs. The fact that for the first time in 70 years political leaders were safe targets for caricature led to the creation of the political matrioshka. Here is an example I bought in 1995, featuring President Boris Yeltsin on the outside, with Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Khrushchev, Stalin, Lenin, and Nicholas II inside.

yeltsin doll

Not so super after all

Peace talks in Minsk to end the war in Ukraine finished early on Thursday morning with the signing of agreement by representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). Almost any agreement is a step in the right direction, but many people had expected more. After all the hype which preceded the talks in Minsk, as well as Sergei Lavrov’s statement about ‘super’ progress, the final result is something of a disappointment.

Before the Minsk document was revealed, there had been considerable speculation that it would involve a demilitarized zone separating the two warring armies in Ukraine, to be occupied by some sort of international peacekeeping force. Had this been the case, we could have been reasonably confident that any ceasefire would hold. As it is, the agreement only mandates a variation of what was agreed in September last year, namely a withdrawal of artillery. Other weapons systems as well as the soldiers who use them will not have to withdraw. The two sides will therefore remain in close contact, creating lots of opportunities for ceasefire violations.

The agreement also doesn’t stipulate what the ceasefire line should be: Ukrainian artillery has to withdraw from the current line, and rebel artillery from the line held in September, but other forces will apparently stay where they are. This in effect recognizes rebel gains since September, but leaves unanswered the question of what will happen to the Ukrainian forces currently surrounded in the area of Debaltsevo. Being on the verge of destroying the Ukrainian forces in Debaltsevo, the rebels are not likely to observe a ceasefire which allows the Ukrainians to remain there. Vladimir Putin remarked that the rebels ‘assume that this grouping lays down its arms and ceases resistance’. But the Minsk agreement doesn’t address the issue, and the Ukrainians may well see things differently. Are the Ukrainians to remain in place? In which case, how are they to be resupplied? Or are they to be withdrawn? We do not know.

Then, there is the thorny question of the final political settlement. The Minsk agreement calls for Ukraine to introduce a constitutional amendment providing for decentralization of power in Donbass by the end of 2015. But it doesn’t lay out any specifics, saying only that the amendment should take into account the peculiarities of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions ‘as agreed with the representatives of these regions’. This suggests that the constitutional amendment must not be unilaterally imposed by Kiev but must be the result of negotiation. But who are these ‘representatives’ with whom it must be negotiated? The leaders of the DPR and LPR will no doubt say that they are, and that any constitutional change requires their agreement. Kiev will very possibly claim that the ‘representatives’ of the region are the Ukrainian government officials in the parts of Donbass it controls. One can easily foresee a situation in which Kiev insists that it has fulfilled its obligations under the Minsk agreement while the rebels say that it has not. It is in any case very difficult to see what sort of decentralization Kiev and the rebels could agree on.

Article 9 of the agreement says that Ukraine will regain control of its border with Russia once it has carried out constitutional reform and elections have been held in Donbass. But again, we are likely to run into problems as to who defines elections as legitimate. Kiev will probably say that only elections held under Ukrainian law are valid. The rebels will insist that those held in the DPR and LPR in November were legitimate. Again, it is hard to see how these differences will be reconciled.

Finally, there is the matter of what becomes of the rebel army. The Minsk document calls for the ‘withdrawal of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries from Ukrainian territory,’ and the ‘disarmament of all illegal groups.’ The Ukrainian position is that the majority of the rebel forces are ‘foreign armed formations’ or ‘mercenaries’, while any which are not are ‘illegal groups.’ The Ukrainian government will therefore almost certainly interpret the document as meaning that the rebel army must disband completely. The rebels, however, will equally certainly claim that their troops are not foreigners nor mercenaries, and that since their governments received a popular mandate in the elections of last November, their military units are not ‘illegal’. The rebels have built up an army perhaps 30,000 strong, with tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, and artillery. They are not going to just disband it and trust that the Ukrainian Army won’t come in and take over.

None of these problems are insurmountable. As German Chancellor Angel Merkel commented, ‘There’s a real chance to turn things for the better.’ But serious obstacles remain to a lasting peace.

‘Better than super’

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov says that the peace talks in Minsk are progressing ‘better than super’. I am waiting until the talks conclude (which looks like being on Thursday) before publishing a longer post. Until then, if you want to hear my views, you can see me on CTV News channel at 6.30 pm ET tonight (Wednesday).

UPDATE: My interview is available online here.

Prospect theory and Crimea

In this week’s session of my class on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, we shall be looking at the psychology of risk, in an effort to determine why people and governments worry so much about unlikely dangers (e.g. terrorism) and not so much about likely ones (e.g. car crashes). Among the things we shall look at is Prospect Theory, so in this post I will briefly describe the theory and then apply it to the case of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March last year.

A good way to understand Prospect Theory is to watch this BBC Horizon video:

The magician in the video gives some people £20 and offers them a chance to gamble. If they refuse, they keep the £20; if they agree to gamble, they have a 50% of winning an extra £30 and ending up with £50 and a 50% chance of losing the £20 and ending up with nothing. The magician frames the choices differently for another group. He gives them £50, but then takes away £30 and offers them a chance to gamble to get the £30 back. Again, the people can refuse, in which case they keep the £20 they have left, or they can gamble, in which case the odds, as before, are 50-50.

Mathematically, both scenarios are identical. The participants can either a) walk away with £20; or b) choose to gamble, in which case they have a 50% chance of ending up with $50 and 50% chance of ending up with zero. But most people in the first scenario refuse to gamble, whereas most people in the second one agree to. Why?

Prospect Theory says that the answer is that we do not think in absolute mathematical terms, but rather relative to some reference point. Our willingness to accept risk is dependent upon whether we consider ourselves in a gain or loss position compared to that point. Human beings are prone to ‘loss aversion’, and so if in a loss position will gamble to try and recoup their losses, but if in a gain position will not, because gambling could result in the loss of what they already have. In the first scenario people are in a gain position – they have gained £20. They are happy to cash in their profits, and reluctant to take a risk which could mean losing what they have. By contrast, those in the second scenario feel that they have lost £30, and so will take a risk in an effort to get it back.

Applied to international affairs, this would imply that states will be less likely to take risks in order to win something (power, prestige, territory, etc), and more likely to take risks in order to avoid losing it.

Many commentators have interpreted Russia’s annexation of Crimea as proof of Russia’s aggressive, imperialist instincts. The next step may be for Russia to expand further, both in eastern Ukraine and perhaps even in the Baltic states. Prospect Theory would suggest something different. Seizing Crimea was a gamble – Russia could not be certain that there would be no resistance, nor could it be sure what the reaction of the Western world and international financial markets would be. Moscow could not know what costs it would incur. Given this, it makes more sense under Prospect Theory if we consider Russian leaders not to have been trying to gain something but rather to have felt themselves to be in a position of loss, and so to be gambling in order to reduce their losses. The loss in question was the fall of a Ukrainian government which was favourably aligned with Russia and its replacement with one which was determined to move westwards and to seek EU and NATO membership. Russia, in a sense, had ‘lost’ Ukraine. It also very possibly feared losing its naval base at Sevastopol. Finding itself in this position, it took the gamble of seizing Crimea as a way of trying to cut its losses.

Prospect Theory, of course, only describes broad tendencies. While people are generally less risk averse when in a position of loss than in a position of gain, there are also people who will gamble in order to win something. Russia’s annexation of Crimea may be such a case. But it is more likely not to be. If not – and if Prospect Theory holds true – the annexation of Crimea does not necessarily suggest that Russia is intent on expanding still further, and negotiating a settlement in Ukraine will not encourage further aggression.

Russia’s Holy War?

Is Russia waging an ‘Orthodox jihad’ against the West? John Schindler, a former National Security Agency official and professor at the U.S. Naval War College, thinks so. The war in Ukraine, says Schindler, ‘bears more than a little resemblance to Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant.’ He attributes to Moscow, ‘a virulent ideology, and explosive amalgam of xenophobia, Chekism, and militant Orthodoxy which justifies the Kremlin’s actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs.’ In a second essay Schindler similarly remarks that, ‘The Kremlin now believes that they [sic] are at war with the United States, an Orthodox Holy War’.

In his blog for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher writes that he finds parts of Schindler’s thesis ‘perceptive’. It isn’t. It reflects a deep misunderstanding of Orthodox theology on the subject of war. Moreover, Schindler cites Ivan Ilyin (whose work I have discussed on this blog here and here) in support of his thesis, calling this ‘holy war’ an example of ‘Ilyinism’. Ilyin’s writings on the subject of violence cannot support that conclusion either.

Holy war has never achieved the same recognition in Orthodox theology as in that of Catholicism. Orthodox theologians have overwhelmingly tended toward the idea that war is sometimes ‘necessary’ as a lesser evil but can never be considered ‘just’. Father Alexander Webster thus notes that, in contrast to Catholicism, which developed a ‘just war theory’, Orthodoxy developed a ‘justifiable war ethic.’ In a study of mediaeval Church documents and Byzantine military manuals, Father Stanley Harakas concluded that, ‘The Eastern Orthodox Patristic tradition rarely praised war and, to my knowledge, never called it “just” or a moral good.’ A meeting of senior Orthodox theologians in Minsk in 1989 issued a statement proclaiming that:

The Orthodox Church unreservedly condemns war as an evil. Yet it also recognizes that in the defence of the innocent and the protection of one’s people from unjust attack, criminal activity, and the overthrowing of oppression, it is sometimes necessary, with reluctance, to resort to arms. In every case, such a decision must be taken with full consciousness of its tragic dimensions. Consequently, the Greek fathers of the Church have never developed a ‘just war theory’, preferring rather to speak of the blessings of and the preference for peace.

Similarly, in 2000 the Jubilee Council of Russian bishops phrased its views on war in terms solely of occasional necessity, saying: ‘While recognizing war as an evil, the Church does not prohibit her children from participating if at stake is the security of their neighbours and the restoration of trampled justice.  Then war is to be considered a necessary though undesirable means.’

Whereas the Catholic Church invented the concept of crusades to spread the faith by means of the sword, the Orthodox Church never endorsed a similar idea. Nor did it endorse the belief, supported by Catholicism in the Middle Ages, that death in a holy war leads to the salvation of the soul. In a recent examination of Orthodox writings on the ethics of war, Yuri Stoyanov notes that Byzantine rulers pushed for the acceptance of a holy war doctrine but met resistance from the Church. ‘This sanctification of warfare’, he writes, ‘did not find widespread acceptance among ecclesiastical elites or more generally within the Byzantine ideology of warfare.’ Instead, the Church generally preferred the teachings of St Basil the Great, who refused to recognize killing in war as ‘praiseworthy’ and recommended that those who kill in battle be denied communion for three years. The Eastern Church also differed from the Western one in that it did not permit priests or monks to bear arms. There was no Orthodox equivalent to the ‘warrior monks’ of the Templars, Hospitallers, or Teutonic Knights. Priests who fought in battle were defrocked.

Schindler’s attempt to argue that modern Russia is waging an ‘Orthodox jihad’ thus reveals an unfortunate ignorance of Orthodoxy.

As for Ivan Ilyin, I will examine his writings on the ethics of force in more detail in another post, but for now it is sufficient to point out that although Ilyin was very firm in arguing that it was necessary to wage war against evil, in line with Orthodox theology he made it very clear that it while ‘necessary’ it was not ‘just’. In his essay The Moral Contradiction of War, Ilyin argued that ‘every war without exception is a morally guilty act.’ He developed this theme further in his 1925 book On Resistance to Evil by Force, in which he stressed that the use of force cannot be considered ‘just’, merely ‘an unsinful (!) perpetration of injustice’. Writing to fellow émigré I. Demidov, he wrote, ‘All my research proves that the sword is not “holy” and not “just”.’

Schindler’s effort to enlist Ilyin as evidence of Russian holy war again displays a profound ignorance.

Nowadays, a blend of liberal democracy, free markets, and human rights has replaced Christianity as the ideology of choice in the West, but the belief that it is ‘just’ to wage war to spread this ideology remains strong. There is, however, no such thing as ‘Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant.’


Friday Object Lesson #14: Soviet Matrioshka

February will be matrioshka month. Somehow I have accumulated a lot of them over the years. From these, I have picked out a different type for each of the next four weeks. This Friday’s is a Soviet matrioshka bought in the 1980s. There are many things that you can do with a nesting doll, but the Soviets almost invariably stuck to the basic model. It’s pretty enough, but at the same time symptomatic of the limitations of the centrally planned economy.


Russia, the West, and the world

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